History Moment: Rachel Lincoln’s Square Piano

Originally published by the Hingham Historical Society

All photos are courtesy of HHS

Nestled in the alcove of the Kelly Gallery at the Hingham Heritage Museum sits a musical treasure. This spinnet, or square fortepiano is one of a very small number that were built between 1790 and 1794 by James Henry Houston of Houston & Co. in London, England. The Society’s Houston is one of only ten surviving examples known to be extant in the world with other examples at large institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts. With serial number 1449 imprinted on the inside, it is estimated that the piano was produced sometime in 1793 or 1794.

In the spring of 1971, the Society received a grant from the Massachusetts Council of the Arts and Humanities to have the instrument, still in working condition, restored by renowned piano conservator Carl Fudge of Winchester, MA and his associate John Koster. Fudge restored the piano to playing condition using almost all of the original parts. He noted in his report “it is really wonderful to consider that so few parts were actually missing”.

Made of 18th century mahogany and fruitwood, this banded square fortepiano was imported to Hingham for Rachel Lincoln (1777-1870) in 1794 and is purported to be the first piano in Hingham. Rachel was the daughter of Nathan and Martha (Fearing) Lincoln. It is an English style, single action piano with five octaves (FF-13), lever dampers, original ivory naturals and sharps made of ebony. Passed down from Rachel Lincoln through various family members over a century and a half, the instrument eventually made its way to the Bouve family. The piano was gifted to the Hingham Historical Society in 1949 by Mrs. Tileston Chickering, sister of Mrs. Walter L. (Charlotte) Bouve. The Historical Society’s headquarters were based out of the Old Ordinary until 1966 when the Society acquired Old Derby Academy. As such, for years the piano lived in the Willard Parlor of the Old Ordinary as seen in this photo from the early 1950’s.

The instrument then rested and was not played again for nearly 50 years. In 2019, the Society connected with American harpsichordist Michael Sponseller who himself had come into possession of one of the ten remaining Houstons and was looking for a pristine example to help him restore it. Sponseller visited the Hingham Heritage Museum to examine and tune the instrument and was impressed by its preserved condition. Michael contacted his friend and colleague Dale Munschy, a restorer and conservator of antiquarian keyed instruments and his wife Syliva Berry, one of North America’s leading proponents of fortepianos and early key instruments including clavichords and virginals. The three musicians visited the Hingham Heritage Museum last year and after another quick tune, were able to play this instrument for the first time in half a century.

Click here for a short clip of Sylvia playing our Lincoln fortepiano.


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